Representation or tokenism?

It will take more than a diverse cabinet to remove the massive barriers this government has put in place for minorities

26th July 2019

The time has finally come — the UK lets out a frightened sigh as Boris Johnson stumbles and bumbles into number 10.

From Johnson’s first pick, Dominic Cummings, a man responsible for one of the most racist campaigns in British history, there’s been much attention on the blooding of the administration, as our new hard-right Prime Minister dismantles his existing Cabinet as though it were an IKEA flatpack, and fills the seats around the big, wooden table with eager Brexiteers and lackeys.

And while pundits are applauding his inclusion of two British Asians and a few women in this new cabinet – a stark departure from May’s own choices – it’s clearer than ever that those at the top continue to bluster past issues of representation, equity and access with little thought beyond political posturing.

Before you even get to the lack of people with disabilities, from other social or LGBT+ backgrounds, you must take a brief pause and shake your head at the celebration of “ black and minority ethnic representation” – when we still see no black inclusion or any other ethnic minority aside from South Asian sitting on the Cabinet.

But then, weren’t we all wise to this kind of empty gesture anyway? It certainly fits into the Tories’ general propensity for empty words and slow signals.

Sajid Javid served as Home Secretary under Theresa May and will serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Boris Johnson

Cue this letter from Tory MP Ed Vaizey, which celebrates a new All-Party Parliamentary Group on increasing diversity in the creative sector.

There are some nice words in this and a recognition that industry and government must both play a part. But it totally disregards the reasons those from underrepresented backgrounds are being blocked from the creative industries —  it undermines and ignores why those doors are closed in the first place.

This past year, the creative sector there has seen an 18% decline in BAME people in advertising, 13% in design, and 10% in film and TV. In sports just 3% of board members in sport representative bodies are disabled, and in the charity world, more than a third of the largest 100 charities have no ethnic diversity in their leadership teams. That’s why our fight for more representation is linked to a fight for fairer politics for the whole of the UK. A fight against the continued and rampant discrimination that places minorities at the bottom of the pile.

If we’re going to have an inclusive society, including those from minority backgrounds, immigrants, refugees and those constantly marginalised, then we need a complete change of mindset (or just a complete change) among those controlling the system.

Priti Patel is a controversial choice for Home Secretary, given her sacking from the cabinet following unofficial meetings with foreign diplomats in late 2017

That means not splashing a small bucket of funding at a problem and concluding the impact of austerity on black communities is overcome. It means not funding major arts events in deprived Muslim communities with money from counter-terrorism initiatives. It means not pretending you care while cutting disability benefits and it means understanding what the rainbow flag you slap on your Twitter header ahead of a major PR hook in your content calendar actually represents and stands for.

That’s why I personally celebrate, to the point of sometimes being moved to tears, the growth of communities and platforms in the UK from underrepresented and intersectional backgrounds supporting one another. It’s something I didn’t have access to when younger and so, it gives me a lot of hope now.

The powerhouse that is gal-dem, the art created by Nuff Said, the platforms created by The Other Box, Burnt Roti, GUAP, Sour Lemons and Colourfull  all highlight how non-white, non-cis-gendered communities are turning away from the locked door to that locked building and once again building their own movement.

Fuck the government. Fuck Boris.

Our own new scheme Do That Thing, supported strongly by our partnership with The Unmistakables, looks to take the energy from this movement and tool it up – pairing black and ethnic minority leaders and creators in London, Manchester and Bradford, to empower one another, and break down some of the regional barriers between these cities’ grossly underrepresented creative scenes.

With all of this creativity, drive, anger and persistence, the next step is to become a supportive collective so empowered that the system cannot ignore us any longer. Time to get moving: Fuck the government. Fuck Boris.

Heather Iqbal runs Do That Thing, a new kind of mentorship scheme for creatives from black and ethnic minority backgrounds from London, Manchester and Bradford. Apply by 15th August here. 

Main image credit: Andrew Parsons/ i-Images

26th July 2019